I LIKE TO THINK of myself as an early adopter, someone who embraces a trend before it's a phenomenon. But somehow I'd missed out on the compression-undergarment craze. Everywhere I looked, athletes were swaddled in shiny, body-hugging sportswear. My soccer teammates sported undershorts and physique-molding T-shirts. Cyclists wore long-sleeved shirts that looked like they had been painted on. Runners trotted by in technical leggings. I hadn't seen so much Lycra since Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Sometime between that 1993 comedy and, in my case, a few weeks ago, skintight apparel ceased to be a mere fashion faux pas and turned into high-performance equipment. While stretch base layers have been around for a long time in cycling and skiing, this new generation of apparel is "engineered" to improve strength, endurance, muscle recovery, and joint support. Under Armour, which took root with football and baseball players, boasts annual sales of nearly $600 million and sponsors athletes as varied as snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis and 2007 Ironman world champion Chris McCormack.
I recently sampled some of the newest pieces from Under Armour, CW-X, and Skins. The Australia-based Skins is the newest of the bunch, and the company touts its patented "gradient compression technology." Translation: garments that squeeze you in all the right places. After I received some samples, I was cc'd on an e-mail to my editor: "Make sure he knows how to use them!" Use them? Don't you just wear them?
While using Skins, I was supposed to experience 10 percent more strength, 15 percent more endurance, and up to a 30 percent longer time to exhaustion. Afterwards, I was to leave them on for four hours for a "60 to 80 percent reduction" in delayed-onset muscle soreness—the pain that arrives one to two days after an intense workout. I tried the Skins for running, mountain biking, and my big game against the dreaded Highlanders, one of the toughest teams in my soccer league.
Whether I felt more strength and endurance was debatable—we lost to the Highlanders, 3-2. I am, however, delighted to report that the Skins completely eliminated the thigh and nipple chafe I suffer during games and long runs.
I also tried the tights for recovery, donning a clean pair for about five hours after my game. Typically I hobble around the next day like an arthritic octogenarian, but I woke feeling remarkably limber. The Skins help improve circulation while simultaneously managing the swelling that takes place after exercise.
The CW-X tights were a tad different. Rather than focusing on compression and circulation, they're designed to improve muscle stability. I tried them on several trail runs and felt like I had a springy exoskeleton wrapped around my legs. Dang if I didn't feel better longer during my workout. The tights were too uncomfortable (and, frankly, clammy) to leave on for as long a recovery period as the Skins. But, again, I simply wasn't that sore the next day.
Last up was the ubiquitous Under Armour. I rotated a few of their basic pieces—short- and long-sleeve Metal compression tops and shorts. The gear was the simplest of the batch but also the most refreshingly comfortable. I don't think it provided quite as much of a competitive edge as the Skins or the CW-X's, but I wasn't in as much of a hurry to rip it off when I had finished my workout or game, either.
All of the products provided an additional layer of welcome warmth, since my test period took place during a fall cold snap. This was a good thing; despite the fact that the slim look is back in vogue, I remained self-conscious wearing these items in public. I found myself pulling shorts over the tights, and a shirt, vest, or jacket over the compression tops. I had come to crave the benefits of the gear, but I was never eager to be seen in it.